08 Fringe: “Common Humanity”

Firefall Dance Theatre’s “Common Humanity”

For my last show of the second Saturday night of the 2008 Indianapolis Fringe Festival, I walked down to the American Cabaret Theatre to see the Firefall Dance Theatre’s presentation of “Common Humanity.”  It was created and choreographed by Stephanie Riner.

In the lobby I bought a can of soda from Joe Tauber.  I ran into him and his daughters several times during the Fringe Festival.  They are with Young Actors Theatre.  He told me that Young Actors sponsored the Athenaeum space for several FringeNext performances.  They operated a refreshment booth in the lobby of the ACT/Athenaeum during the Fringe to raise money.

I carried my soda upstairs to the American Cabaret space and was delighted by “Common Humanity.”  This is a multi-disciplinary piece whose purpose is, according to Riner’s program notes, to”explore the different aspects of the human experience (using) a diverse cast.”  It weaves segments of narration with segments of dance with segments of in-the-moment painting.

When the audience enters the theatre, narrator Robyn Wood is already on stage but not paying attention to anyone else.  She swivels back and forth in her office chair, looking over her notes.

When it is time for the show to start, she asks us, “Are there common threads that connect us?”  We all have emotions, she reminds us.  We all long for emotional connectedness, something that ironically seems more challenging as we acquire more and more technology.  “Put on your seatbelt,” she says.  We are in for an emotional rollercoaster ride.

With a burst of loud music, dancers dressed in angry red and black bound onto the stage.  At the same time, over to one side, painter Katy Kessler picks up a large, white, puzzle piece-shaped canvas from a stack and begins to cover it with paint in a way that further interprets the show’s words, music, and movements.

Narration.  Dance.  Narration.  Dance.  (And painting, painting, painting.)  That is the rhythm of this show.  The narration includes questions and other verbal food for thought about not only our common emotions but also our common purposes, our commonalities in religion, our common experiences of hurt/trust and isolation, and, most importantly, our common need to give and receive love.

The dancers, who come “from all walks and stages of life” and whose “ages span almost 25 years and (whose) dance experience (ranges) from novice to professional” amplify these themes using a wide variety of dance styles to a wide variety of music.  

The dancers include Jenny Braun, Tiffany Riner, Brandie Burgess, Rebecca Davis, Andrea Eberhart, JoyNoelle Savage, Lawrence Webb, Emily Davis, Magdalena Olesiak, Julia Richards, Cami Zook, Bridgette Jesop, Brenda Paultre, and Darin Johnson.

Tap, hip-hop, modern…I don’t know the names for all of the dance styles, nor for all of the kinds of music.  I do know that I felt swept up by their power.  The many layers of diversity in the piece made me more aware both of what individuals have in common, and of the full richness of the human experience.

One of the segments that touched me especially deeply was the “Hurt/Trust” segment, subtitled “No More Walls: True Community.”  Dancers dressed in black and grey sit and stand and spin in wheeled office chairs whose backs have been roughly stenciled with words such as “rejection,” “depression,” “doubt,” and more.

But then other dancers – angels in sparkly peach and grey outfits – come in to help the weighted-down dancers let go of their heavy chairs, peel off their black over-blouses, and otherwise lighten up.  All of the dancers let go…except for one, who is determined to hang on to her chair full of hurt no matter what.

I guess angels can only do so much.

After that segment, the Narrator says, “If we let someone in…the world becomes fuller…with higher highs but also lower lows…They have to choose to ask…We push people away even as we want closeness.”

Ain’t that the truth.

She also says, “This world is full of people at different stages of letting go…How do we keep our hearts open in a world of closed-up people?”

She again mentions the fact that the technology that supposedly helps us to connect with each other more efficiently – e.g. laptops, iPods, cell phones – actually sometimes keeps us from exploring our world in a present, immediate way.

That narration flows into a danced interpretation of the song whose lyrics include “Come talk to me…”

I loved being able to glance over every so often and see Kessler starting a new canvas, accumulating finished paintings in a haphazard row.  At the very end of the show, dancers quickly help Kessler assemble the freshly-painted puzzle pieces…and not only do the canvas shapes fit together neatly, the painted bits do, too!  Yay!

This show spoke deliberately and effectively to my mind, my heart, and my spirit.  I wish I could see it again.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com 

PS – Other credits include:  Graphic Arts & Design – Andrea Eberhart.  Photography – Janelle Demchak.  Musical Engineering – James Masterson.  Stage Manager – Michele Workman.  Show Assistant – Janet Riner.  Seamstress (Hope) – Stephanie Riner.  Seamstress (Love) – Denise Wilfong & cast.

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